Teresa de Caragena (c.1425–) was a Spanish author and nun who became deaf between 1453 and 1459. That influenced her two known works Arboleda de los enfermos (Grove of the Infirm) and Admiraçión operum Dey (Wonder at the Works of God). The latter work represents what many critics consider as the first feminist tract written by a Spanish woman.
Cartagena wrote her first work Arboleda de los enfermos in reaction to the solitude of her deafness. Approximately one to two years later, she penned a defense of her first essay, called Admiraçión operum Dey, after mostly male critics claimed that a woman could not have possibly been the author of such an eloquent and well-reasoned work. Both of her writings have come down to modern readers through a single manuscript completed by the copyist Pero López del Trigo in 1481.
Important as Spain’s first feminist writer, Teresa also contributed to an overall European canon of medieval feminist authors including Hildegard von Bingen and Christine de Pizan. Both Arboleda and Admiraçión are semi-autobiographical works that provide an authentic written voice of the Medieval female, a true rarity among works of the Middle Ages.
Arboleda de los enfermos
Teresa’s first essay examines the effect of her deafness on her life and its spiritual development. After first being devastated by the initial onset of the illness, Teresa meditates in the silent prison of her deafness and ultimately concludes that God has caused this in order to separate her from the distractions of everyday noise. After much reflection in the echoing of sounds within the cloisters of her ears, Teresa reasons that her soul would have been purer if she had never been exposed to speech at all, which makes one turn to the outside material world and forget the inner spiritual world.
The copyist, Pero López, indicates that her work was addressed to Juana de Mendoza, wife of Gómez Manrique, a poet and prominent political figure of the time, but within Arboleda, she addresses a “virtuosa señora" (virtuous lady), who may be Juana de Mendoza, suggesting a female audience at large. In contrast, the genre Teresa employs, the libro de consolaciones (book of consolations), was primarily authored by men and addressed a male audience. In order to humble herself strategically before male readers, the author reiterates the weakness of her intellect or “la baxeza e grosería de mi mugeril yngenio" [the lowliness and grossness of my womanly intellect].
Admiraçión operum Dey
Despite her strategies to disarm the male reader in Arboleda, men still rejected Teresa’s work as plagiarized. In response to this male criticism, she composes Admiraçión operum Dey, making the argument that if God created men who could write, he could just as well have created women who could write, and while men have been writing for centuries, it does not make it any more natural for them to write but rather it seems natural because men have been writing for such a long time. In addition, simply because women have not traditionally written like men, it does not mean that female writing is any less natural.
Cleverly, Teresa argues that if God bestows a gift upon men then he can just as well bestow the same gift upon women.
According to Teresa, the tranquil and spiritual interior world of the household, in contrast to the exterior warring world of men, constitutes a place for reflection and intellectual growth. While strategically noting that men and women are not equal in all capacities, Teresa also remarks that masculine and feminine roles complement each other because of their differences. Her subtly feminist argument rejects the commonly held medieval belief that women were the weaker sex, intended by God for exclusively passive and reproductive purposes.